Jun 06 2022

How Workload Analysis Can Ease Fiscal Constraints in Higher Education

An in-depth look at the work employees do, along with a boost from technology solutions, can have a dramatic impact on workplace efficiency.

Higher education is bouncing back from one of the most difficult years the industry has ever seen. The first semester with students back in classrooms is in the rear-view, and things are starting to look up. However, some major challenges linger as a result of the pandemic, and one of the largest is the financial crisis in higher education. According to a recent survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 74% of higher education professionals cited financial constraints as the most significant challenge college campuses face.

I spent almost a decade in higher education at a land grant institution, working with executives and on financial systems, and this statistic is one that I can’t shake — though it’s not exactly surprising. In a field where education is the primary aim, you would hope the top concern would be related to students or research — not finances. There also is a steady stream of articles about struggles to recruit and retain employees and maintain employee morale. Undeniably, the two go hand in hand: When budget constraints make it difficult to increase pay or hire more staff, the result is burnout.

So, what is higher education to do when it cannot attract and retain employees? There is no easy answer.

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Find New Efficiencies in How Employees Spend Their Time

Raising revenue to pay employees more — the traditional response to addressing fiscal constraints — has always been met with raised eyebrows in higher education, given its mission-based focus on education and fierce competition for research dollars.

So, as higher education continues to run lean, a greater focus must be placed on what people are doing. This is often not a simple task. It is time-consuming to understand how employees’ days are spent, but it is necessary, as workload analysis — and subsequent changes — can begin to alleviate heavy workloads. For example, is anyone at your organization processing paper contracts? Manually entering paper invoices into a financial system? Completing paper timecards? Requiring five or six approvals on a hiring requisition? Facing complex, lengthy internal policies and procedures? If yes, that’s a good place to start.

I remember when I realized that people within my unit were manually keying in a paper-based supplier form to our financial system. I was a senior director at the time, a bit more removed from some of the daily tasks that my direct reports and their direct reports were completing. I was mortified — not that they were doing this, but because as a leader, I had missed understanding how we completed this business process. The result of my error was increased stress and inefficient use of time in a unit already feeling strained.

LEARN MORE: Disruptive innovation helps universities overcome financial obstacles.

Find Technology Solutions to Increase Efficiency in Higher Ed

After this realization, we leveraged our financial system to allow suppliers to set themselves up, rather than having them complete a paper form that employees later needed to manually enter into the system. And while I’m a bit sheepish to admit this example, it does provide us a glimpse into another part of the solution for addressing the double-edged sword of morale issues and financial constraints: replacing manual tasks with technology.

This does not mean position reductions and terminations. Technology will not cut positions in higher education or replace the value that only employees can bring; it will simply help us make up for positions that were lost years ago and never filled. Further, it can help us automate administrative tasks so employees can focus on more strategic, mission-critical projects. A more agile financial system, for instance, can automate data collection, freeing up time for employees to analyze and derive useful insights from the data, rather than toiling over inputting and organizing it.

While beginning to use technology can be intimidating within higher education, higher education’s transformation to more automated processes can, and should, begin in finance and human resources. These are the backbone of any school’s ability to remain compliant, provide accurate reporting and efficiently control resources, all of which will help address the top concern right now in higher education.

Let’s take advantage of this moment to help — and lead change — as finance professionals.

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